On April 17th, 2014, Saralyn Gayle Portwood was arrested for ‘allegedly forcibly performing oral sex’ on a Princeton High School student in Texas. The male student, age 17, claimed that Portwood had been making inappropriate comments and contact with him since earlier in the year. He expressed to her that he was not interested, but she persisted. He stated he did not know where to turn or who to tell, and then he was called into her office one afternoon where he claims she “pushed him against a desk, pulled down his shorts, and began performing oral sex” against his will. (Huffington Post)
This is one of many cases becoming more frequent in the news about female teachers having inappropriate relations with male students yet despite the fact that such is illegal, there seems to be no outrage. Why? Why did the young male in Portwood’s case feel he couldn’t tell anyone? Is it because of believability? Is it so difficult to believe that a teenage boy would not want the attention of an older female teacher? Why is society not showing the same outrage as they do in cases of male teachers preying on teenage girls? Why isn’t this perceived as what it is; rape?
According to sociologist, Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, Ph.D., it’s “really troubling, and even when you try and discuss this with other people, the reaction and response that you get from the average citizen almost inevitably is ‘where were those teachers when I was young’ from the men.” This, she points out, is in direct contrast to the response when a teenage girl is preyed upon by a male teacher.
“This has to do with a combination of factors” she states. “Synergistically, we have notions about masculinity….dudes always want it. Dudes can’t be taken advantage of…there’s that idea about what masculinity is.” Tibbals says even though we have progressed as a society in our views about males and masculinity there are still ingrained ideas about the differences between males and females. One example is that of days past when fathers would take their sons to prostitutes to have that ‘right of passage’ into manhood. By contrast, daughters were to remain chaste and virginity prized above all else. This idea persists in many cultures around the world such as the case of Brunei which recently announced a return to Sharia Laws that oppress women’s sexuality and rights while celebrating male sexual dominance.
Tibbals has primarily worked with college-age students rather than high school students but says the dynamic is the same; it’s about power. Since society doesn’t attribute power to women it has a problem viewing women as predators. Even more so, she says it can be further narrowed down by race.
“We refuse to see white women as sexual predators. If you look at these cases, all the women who get off Scott-free or are written away, or even the ones who do get “punished”, how did these situations come about? Did they go on for years? It has to do with this deeper, gendered idea we have that these women, these white, blonde, ‘cutesie’ ladies in particular cannot be predatory individuals.”
The women express remorse, and the young males often say they felt special because that older woman was paying attention to them. Society views these scenarios with far more understanding, but if the players were reversed and it was a male teacher expressing remorse while the young female student says she ‘felt special’, society would be outraged. Again, it’s about power and the manipulation that occurs within the dynamic.
Tibbals says that in many cases, the women have it firmly in their minds that they couldn’t “possibly be a predator and they (the young men) couldn’t possibly not want it.” She likens it to criminals who know how to beat a lie detector test. They convince themselves that the lie is the truth.
A real problem with that type of thinking is that we forget that young ladies mature faster than young men, and that these situations can have lasting, long-term effects and consequences on how they develop emotionally; how they form and sustain future relationships.
“The power differential” applies. “Even if you’re a young man at the age of 15, you say ‘this is good for me’ – when you’re 15 years old you think everything is good for you. You think your favorite band is the best thing ever, skateboarding is the only thing you ever want to do with your life, you think all these 15 year old thoughts, and we’re very, very quick to go, ‘oh, you’re a young person’ – you’re feelings are exciting and developing, but you’re a kid. You’re not old enough to drink. You’re not old enough to vote…but something about this sex notion we just don’t look at; we don’t see.” The point is made that at 15 or 16 or even 17, decisions made that kids think are okay are made without any thought to long-term consequences.
As she states, when a teacher accepts a contract to teach, they accept all the rules that go with it which includes not dating students, not taking advantage of the power they have as the instructor, as the adult. Teachers are responsible for more than a student’s education. They are responsible for their safety during the time that student is in their custody. Violating that responsibility is directly causing harm to that student.
Such violations affect victims differently. Some young males will not even see themselves as victims, but rather consider it bragging rights because the person they just had sex with was an adult. On the opposite end, others may suffer from the experience feeling betrayed and hurt by a trusted adult. Since it was an adult, they may not know who to turn to for help as in the case stated above. One adult already caused harm so why would another help?
As a society, we need to equally align our viewpoints concerning predators and innocent victims whether the victims are male or female; whether or not the predators are male or female. Predators take power away from prey through either manipulation or force.
Tibbals cites an essay written by a former college student of hers surrounding a conversation the class had about actor Paul Walker (Fast and Furious). After his death, it came out that he had been having a relationship with a young woman half his age. One of her students said “Oh, he’s so beautiful, who cares like it was okay that he was having sex with a minor.” She says the essay was gut-wrenching in that it focused on that student’s own experience of being 15 years old and dating a man who was in his mid-twenties. She liked him. Her parents liked him. He had a job. But Tibbals says it wasn’t until more than 10 years later, she realized that “not only was he a predator, but that he was taking advantage of her in many, many ways. Her family was also culpable because they didn’t protect her, they didn’t tell her no. To bring this back to the conversation, the idea that a young person making an autonomous decision is wonderful and great, but there’s all these other things that happen, and it’s a real slippery slope – a young man who is basically being assaulted by an older woman and is dealing with all these issues, and also, all these notions of masculinity, it’s a complicated issue.”
A good way to un-complicate it is to understand that even if a young man’s body is showing clear signs of arousal, his words, much like the words of women in the same situation, are saying no. And no means no. Hesitation means no. Anything that isn’t a clear “Yes” stated by a consenting adult male (of the age of 18 or more and is not the student of the person making moves) is no.
Rape is rape. It doesn’t have to be violent. It can be from someone we trust or look up to. It can be the direct result of seduction and manipulation by an older person in the position of power. It is always rape when it’s a minor seduced or taken advantage of by a teacher.
The rise in cases of female teachers and male students may be because of more cases being reported or more awareness and therefore encouragement for victims to speak out, but whatever the reason, we all must treat it with equal outrage and do all we can to protect innocents from being victimized.
Please talk to your teens about this issue. Ask them what they think or if they know anyone going through this. Encourage them to speak up and speak out to help themselves and others. Encourage them to report any wrong-doing, even if they are unsure if it’s right or wrong. Protecting a child must always be the priority over protecting the adult.